The Quest of An Everyday Soccer Mom to Read the Modern Library's 100 Best Fiction Books of the 20th Century.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moment of Truth.....Dec 2009

Okay, people. I have a confession to make.

Having taken the Barnes and Noble gift card I got for Xmas (my folks, in-laws and husband being proud financial contributors to the blog) out to pick up my copy of Ragtime this past weekend, I got a big reality check when I 'peeked' and saw the size of two upcoming books, Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and The Education of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It was at that moment that I realized that the challenge I have set for myself of reading 100 books in a 100 week time span is not only an impossible task, but is also an undesirable one.

When I began this blog, 100 weeks felt like an eternity. I felt sure I could get each book on the list read in a week's time. What I didn't realize was that some of the books would be 600+ pages, some of the shorter books would actually take longer to read than the bigger books, and that some of the books would be so engrossing that I would unsconsciously slow down and savor them like fine wine. Silly me....I also forgot to factor in time for having a full-time job, being a mom, sleeping, etc.... not to mention the craziness of the holidays! Suddenly books that should have taken a week were taking two or three....and the clock was ticking!!!

As the weeks flew by on my countdown, and I fell further and further behind, the relaxation I've always enjoyed from reading disappeared. I felt like I 'had' to read, just to keep up; like I was going through the motions to get the book done, not to take it all in. It wasn't right!!

Therefore, after much reflection, I've decided to change my blog title to 100 Books. 100 Journeys, because each book is a unique and interesting journey, with characters taking me to different places and times, dealing with unique situations. I will still be blogging as regularly as before, the main difference being I won't be stressing myself out with a deadline, and I will be able to enjoy (or not enjoy, as the case may be) each book MORE. I hope you'll stay with me! It will still be a challenge just to get through these 100 tomes of literature, believe me!! And soccer season is just around the corner!

Happy New Year to all, and Happy Reading!!!

Pam (SocrMom78)

Friday, December 18, 2009

#88...The Call of the Wild

"Thornton knelt down by Buck's side. He took his head in his two hands and rested cheek on cheek. He did not playfully shake him, as was his wont, or murmur soft love curses, but he whispered in his ear, "As you love me, Buck. As you love me," was what he whispered."

I do not love animal stories, especially ones where animals get hurt or die. Old Yeller traumatized me for life, as did Turner and Hooch. Yes, I know animal death is all part of the great Circle of Life and everything (yes, I bawled through The Lion King as well) but when you get right down to it, animal stories are just something I avoid like the plague. Period. Marley and Me will never, ever be on my TBR list.

So as you might guess I was jumping for joy to read Jack London's mini-epic The Call of the Wild. I spent most of the first 40 pages fighting back tears for Buck, a dog who is suddenly uprooted from a loving and happy home to hauling heavy sleds, barely getting enough food to make it through a day, sleeping wet and cold in the snow every night, and not to mention occasionally being attacked by humans or other dogs. Buck is able to dig deep to find the will to not only survive, but thrive in his new environment, and along the way does meet up with some very ethical and loving humans. Thank God.

Despite the animal angle, I found Call to be very well written. London is good at expressing the shock and denial any of us humans would experience in such a dramatic change in living conditions. Watching Survivor or Lost, you see people doing essentially the same thing Buck does…getting past social niceties and doing what they have to do to survive, no matter what else happens.

If animal stories are your thing (and I won't tell you if Buck makes it or not) pick up The Call of the Wild.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Commenting on TIME Magazine's Top 100 Books....

I printed out TIME Magazine's Top 100 books of the 20th century (from 1923-2000), just to compare with the Modern Library's list, and of the last 11 books I have read, only four are on the TIME list...Midnight's Children, Wide Sargasso Sea, The Sheltering Sky, and Under the Net. You'll have to excuse my complete stupefaction as to how a book like Under the Net made it and Sophie's Choice DIDN'T make it. Glad I'm not reading THAT list!!!

At least they excluded The Magus. :)

We'll check in more with TIME's list later as we roll further through the ML list; in the meantime, I've added the link to the "100 Books Extras" on the sidebar.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

#90....Midnight's Children

"To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world."

I have to admit I had my apprehensions about reading anything by Salman Rushdie. All his name brought to mind was what happened when I was a teenager with his book The Satanic Verses, which already sounded sacrilegious to my Catholic-raised mind. Turns out the Ayatollah Khomeini agreed with me; the book contained what he perceived as a blasphemous reference to the prophet Mohammad. Khomeini issued a fatwa (basically a death sentence) for the British-born Rushdie. He was forced to live in hiding for years, and Iran and the UK actually broke diplomatic relations in 1989, thanks to his book. Those out there who don’t think writing a book can change your life, think again!

In Rushdie’s 2nd novel, Midnight’s Children, our narrator, Saleem Sinai, is born exactly at midnight on August 15, 1947…the very day India becomes independent from Britain. But Saleem’s time seems to be running out, as he is mysteriously beginning to disintegrate into millions of pieces, so he begins to tell the story of his extraordinary family. He begins with his grandfather, Aadam Aziz, a foreign university trained physician who falls in love with his wife piece-by-piece as it is shown through a hole in a sheet, so he falls in love with her before he even sees her face. Their daughter Mumtaz steals her older sister’s boyfriend Ahmed away from her, but upon marrying him, she realizes she does not love her husband. She resolves to fall in love with her husband piece by piece, much like Aadam did with Naseem. She saves the life of a Hindi entertainer from a Muslim mob, and he reads her palm and predicts she will have an extraordinary son. In Bombay, where they rent a mansion from a Britisher, William Methwold, Amina and another poorer woman become pregnant at the same time, and both deliver right at midnight. The babies are switched by ayah Mary Pereira, so that the rich baby will be poor and the poor baby will be rich. Saleem is actually the baby of the British Methwold and the poor woman, who dies after giving birth, but he is unknowingly raised as the son of the Sinais.

Saleem is not a beautiful baby. He has patchy colored skin, very light blue eyes, is unable to blink, and has a huge nose. Soon afterwards, his sassy sister Jamila, also known as the Brass Monkey, is born, who grows up as a tomboy-ish attention seeker, setting fire to people's shoes and breaking stuff. Saleem gets all kinds of special gifts during the novel, such as reading people's minds, killing people in his sleep, an extraordinary sense of smell, and the ability to communicate with people who are far away in his head. Saleem finds out that the living 581 ‘midnight’s children’ are from all over India, and have special gifts that are more extraordinary the closer they are born to midnight. He creates the Midnight Children’s Conference (MCC), where all of them can meet, in his head, between midnight and 1am every night, to talk about their gifts and what to do with them. Here Saleem meets Shiva, the baby he was swapped with on his birthday and the true son of the Sinais. Shiva has huge knees with which he can crush people, and he is a member of a rough gang. Saleem’s parentage is discovered when Saleem needs a blood transfusion and the doctor realizes that Saleem’s unique blood type could not have come from either Amina or Ahmed. The Brass Monkey has now become the favored child and his father barely acknowledges his existence, and she becomes a famous singer. As Saleem grows, the children of the MCC grow as well, and begin to take on the beliefs and prejudices of their parents, so that no one gets along. He meets up with one of the other Midnight’s Children, Parvati, who has gotten pregnant by Shiva, and they get married and she has her son Aadam on the night of India's Emergency. He has huge ears and doesn't make sounds. The Widow, the leader of India, has found out about the MCC through Shiva, and goes about rounding up all of them when she begins leveling the slums as part of a 'beautification' project. All except those who are dead (Parvati dies) are taken into custody and all have hysterectomies and testectomies to prevent their magical skills from living on. What she does not realize is that Shiva got a bunch of other women pregnant, so the legacy of the MCC will live on.

There was really no way to quickly summarize Midnight’s Children, so I didn’t try; nor did I want to. To do so would not have done justice to the richness of the story and even with my long summary, there are still important plot aspects and symbolism I didn’t get to…but I have to leave you something to discover for yourself. The third section of the book was a little harder to get into with all of the war stuff, and I had to reread that section twice because I felt like I was missing things. There were also many historical personages from the Indo-Pakistan conflict with very similar sounding names so that made it sort of confusing as well. I had to go to Wikipedia a few times while reading to learn about Indira Gandhi (who was apparently the inspiration for 'The Widow’), the Indian Emergency and Partition, and this really helped me understand what was going on in the story.

East vs West, poor vs rich, modern vs traditional….all are struggles that the heterogenous country of India went through to become the democracy that it is today. Saleem tells us on the first page of the book that ‘his destiny is insolubly chained to that of his country'. He is born on the day of India’s independence, of poor Indian and wealthy English parents, with both bloodlines visible in his physical features, and throughout the book, he shares his fear of crumbling into 600 million pieces (at that time the population of India). The struggle between the traditional and the modern is also highlighted in the battle of wills between Naseem and Aadam, as they definitely don’t see eye to eye on the role of women and raising children.

After I read this book, I was mad at myself for waiting so long to pick up a Rushdie novel. I am sure I will again in the future.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ranking the 1st 10 Books...

Ten books in, I'm not quite sure I knew what I was signing up for when I started this blog. I know for certain that I would never have bought any of these books, or read them, had I not seen the Modern Library list and decided to do this, so for sure this challenge has opened my eyes to new literary vistas.

I think I also had very high expectations for this list....maybe too high. Several times I've begun a book on this list, expecting (hoping?) it will be this unbelievable tome of classic literature that will change my life forever, and then I've ended up disappointed and disillusioned by the end of it, always asking the same question: How the he** did this book get on a list like this? There have GOT to be better books out there from the last century than Under the Net!!!

What's been interesting is going to other sites like and and reading other people's reviews of the books after I've read them. It's so crazy how the same book can evoke such different responses in people. Here's a quote from a reader reviewing The Magus on "It changed my life in so many ways and without my realising, pushed me into the career that I'm in. I've visited it again and again so many times." Not only do I shiver to think about what career path The Magus would inspire someone to start (cult member? porn star? flight attendant?), but I know for sure the only way I would ever visit The Magus again and again would be to use it as a doorstop. :)

Here's my ranking of the first ten books, from best (1) to worst (10).

1 Tobacco Road
2 Ironweed
3 Sophie's Choice
4 The Magnificent Ambersons
5 The Postman Always Rings Twice
6 Wide Sargasso Sea
7 The Sheltering Sky
8 The Magus
9 Under the Net
10 The Ginger Man

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

#91....Tobacco Road

As a book blogger, I try to read lots of reviews of the books that I’m reading or have read, just to see if I'm way off base with what I'm thinking about a book. Every once in a while, I’ll see a review where book editors and professional bloggers way smarter than me have all raved about a book and how profound/hilarious/interesting/etc it was (i.e. The Ginger Man). It is then I have to step back from the computer, and ask myself, What did they see about this book that I didn’t?? Am I really that dense?

A good example of this is Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. From what I read, this book most likely was not supposed to be funny. In his review of Tobacco Road on his website, Doug Shaw commented that “a less perfect writer would have made you laugh with the events of this story”, and many of the reviews I read on didn’t think it was funny at all, or categorized the book as “dark comedy”. Well, I gotta tell ya. For all the laughing I didn’t do with The Ginger Man, I more than made up for it with Tobacco Road. I laughed like a hyena throughout this book, to the point where I was forced to read excerpts like the following to my husband and daughter because they couldn’t understand why I had tears rolling down my face:

“Now Lord, I’ve got something special to pray about. I don’t ask favors unless they is things I want pretty bad, so this time I’m asking a favor for Pearl. I want You to make her stop sleeping on a pallet on the floor while Brother Lov has to sleep by himself in the bed. Make Pearl get in the bed, Lord, and make her stay there where she belongs. She ain’t got no right to sleep on a pallet on the floor when Lov’s got a bed for her. Now, You make her stop acting like she’s been, and put her in the bed when night comes. I was a good wife to my former husband. I never slept on no pallet on the floor…. And when I marry another man, I ain’t going to do that neither. ….So You tell Pearl to quit that.”

Hilarious, right? Well, maybe you had to be there.

The lowest rung of Southern society is brought to life with the Lester family in Tobacco Road. If you’ve read Gone with the Wind, think the Slattery family, the “poor whites” who barely existed except off the charity of their rich planter neighbors. The patriarch of the family, Jeeter Lester, loves farming more than anything else in the world, although he’s so broke that he hasn’t been able to buy any fertilizer or seeds to actually farm, and his family of five is slowly starving to death in what could euphemistically be called a shack in rural Georgia. The Lesters used to own all the land around them, but they became so poor that they mortgaged it all away, and what credit they had was cut off when their lone planter neighbor moved away. Most of the other Lester children have gone off to work in the cotton mills, but Jeeter loves to farm too much to do that. Since he clearly can’t farm, his career consists of begging, starving and whining, not necessarily in that order.

The majority of the book had me in stunned disbelief, as I watched this family get chance after chance to improve their standing in life, and then watched them blow the chance in the worst possible way, or watched them resist making any changes whatsoever. Were they so ignorant that they couldn’t see opportunities to take advantage of, or just so lazy that they couldn’t be bothered, or just unable to adapt to change? A tough call there. Jobs at the mill, where money could be made, were there for the taking; yet no one in the Lester household even talked about a steady job. Money that could have been spent on seeds or food was spent on stupid stuff like snuff. The amount of time Jeeter spent begging from neighbors and relatives could have been well used for more profitable endeavors. Yet he clings to his love for the land and farming, when it’s pretty clear to everyone that he can’t do it.

To me, this family illustrated Darwin’s notion of "survival of the fittest" to a T. People who don’t capitalize on their environments and/or aren’t motivated enough to do even the most basic things to maintain existence get winnowed out. I think I would have felt more pity for them had they actually tried to save themselves and failed. It’s hard to feel sorry for people who don’t help themselves out. Therefore, my alternative was to laugh at their stupid choices and tragic-comedic fates. So I did.

I enjoyed this book very much. Definitely a sleeper at #91 on the ML list.

Grade: A-

Saturday, November 28, 2009


"A man ain't afraid of goin' back."

"Technically a weed is any plant that is unwanted or a nuisance", explains The Suburbian Agrarian on his website, Places like Home Depot and fertilizer companies make a killing (pun intended) on trying to help homeowners control weeds. Weeds like ironweed (called so because of its tough stem) generally have very brief, unremarkable lives, aren’t highly valued by people because of their less than aesthetic appearance, and as anyone knows that's ever tried to get rid of dandelions, weeds have a way of coming back, again and again and again.

I'm sure William Kennedy had the image of ironweed in mind when he wrote about Francis Phelan, the main character of his book, Ironweed. This book is the third of a series of seven books that Kennedy wrote about goings-on in his hometown of Albany NY. Francis is a homeless drifter/one-time baseball player/recovering alcoholic and his drifter friends as they try to make ends meet in the streets of Albany. In the present, Francis is trying to pull his life together; he's got a homeless semi-girlfriend Helen, also once-upon-a-time famous as a singer, and a drifter friend named Rudy. But Francis’ checkered past is just as present. Ghosts from Francis’ past, some of whom he killed, converse with Francis and even follow him around. He is haunted by his role in the death of his infant son, which drove him to abandon his family and turn his back on everything he knew.

I loved this book. It had such a fantastic message. Even though Francis had his fifteen minutes of fame and lost it, which would have embittered anyone, and even though he has committed cold-blooded murder several times, Francis is a resilient, compassionate character who survives (like the plant ironweed), commands your sympathy, and does not let his situation get him down. He survives hunger, cold, homelessness. He proves his humanity as he collapses at the grave of his baby son, and reaches out to those around him to help them, like taking care of Helen and giving his dinner to Sandra before she dies. Even the murders Francis committed are revealed as self-defense. When the chance comes for Francis to reunite with his family, forgive himself, and leave his past behind, you are truly rooting for him to return to them and forgive himself.

I am sure William Kennedy didn’t live on the streets like Francis Phelan did, but he sure writes like someone who knew what it was like to have nothing, and appreciate everything, like Francis did. Totally recommended.

Grade: A-

Monday, November 23, 2009

#93.....The Magus

My husband loves psychological thrillers. One of his repeat Christmas gift requests is the Saw box set. The Saw movies come from the Silence of the Lambs genre, and usually depict people that are given a choice between a gruesome, horrible death, and….well….an alternative gruesome, horrible death. “I love that they mess with my head,” he said, when I asked him what the appeal of watching people dig through boxes of razor blades with bare hands was. Suffice it to say the appeal of these movies is completely lost on me, which is why we do not currently own any of them.

Subsequently, the appeal of John Fowles’ 656 page epic The Magus, was also lost on me. Mind games abound in the story of Nicholas Urfe, a middle-class Englishman who ditches his non-committal girlfriend Alison and signs on to teach school on the remote Greek island of Phraxos. That’s apparently not all he’s signed up for. Nosing around on the island, he has the misfortune to meet Conchis, a rich and psychic recluse. Strange things happen whenever Nicholas spends the weekend at Conchis’ house. Conchis tells stories that are ostensibly about his own life, and then portions of the stories are brought to life by the people that live and work for him. Unlike the rest of us, who would run like hell if we saw someone walking around wearing a jackal head, something keeps pulling Nicholas back to Conchis’ house. One of those somethings is the elusive and beautiful Julie, one of Conchis’ friends and the biggest tease of them all. As the story progresses, the lines between fact and fiction become blurrier and blurrier, and Nicholas becomes lost in the bizarre world Conchis has created for him. Does he ever escape? How will this experience change his life?

Honestly? I was pretty much done by page fifty. I sat through Conchis' meandering 20-page stories, only to find out five pages later that they're all lies, and then five more pages later, find out that even the lies are lies. Ad nauseum. By the end of the book I no longer knew who the bad guys were, or who the good guys were, or if there were any good guys, for that matter. Who do you root for when everyone is screwed up? It turns out by the end of the book that Conchis has woven this surrealistic world specifically for Nicholas to teach him a lesson about the kind of person he is, and everyone in Nicholas’ life has been in on the game BUT Nicholas. I couldn’t help feeling a certain kind of pity for him by the end…but then again, he was kind of a dirtbag. I know a couple of guys from my high school days who would be GREAT candidates to go through this, if Conchis is still out there and needs new people :)

So in the end? Not my thing. Kind of like the Saw movies, but without the razor blades. It didn't work well for me as a novel, but it works awesome as a doorstop in the house on a windy day.

Grade: D-

Thursday, October 29, 2009

#94....Wide Sargasso Sea

"Coming from the Antilles’, he declared, ‘with a terrifying insight and … passion for stating the case of the underdog, she has let her pen loose on the Left Banks of the Old World”. Ford Madox Ford, describing the writing of Jean Rhys.

Jean Rhys certainly knew her subject when she wrote about Bertha Mason, the tormented ‘madwoman in the attic’ of Bronte’s Jane Eyre in her novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. Born on the island of Dominica, daughter of an English doctor and a Dominican mother, Rhys was also a child of mixed blood who was treated as an outsider in England, where she went to live with her aunt, because of her accent and mannerisms. Bertha Mason, introduced to us as Antoinette, is also a child of mixed blood who is treated as an outsider on the island of Jamaica, where she lives. Mixed blood is considered to be of lower status than black or white in the island’s society. Her mother Annette marries a wealthy Englishman but goes crazy when her house is burned to the ground and one of her children dies. After Annette’s death, Mr Mason takes care of Antoinette, sending her to school and to live with her Aunt Cora. Antoinette’s marriage is arranged to a man who is never named, but is assumed to be Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre. Her checkered past follows her to the island of Dominica, where a distant relative begins to fill Mr Rochester’s head with poisonous thoughts about his new wife and her family, intimating Antoinette could go the same way as her mother. Because Mr Rochester cannot be persuaded to think otherwise, the self-fulfilling prophecy becomes true.

Like any underdog story, the story of Antoinette’s turbulent childhood and the self-fulfilling prophecy of her madness is compelling and tragic. Rhys portrays the racial discrimination and isolation Antoinette experiences with great poignancy, having endured it herself to some degree in her own childhood. The stubborn blindness of Mr Rochester, who married for money and not love and who crushes his wife’s spirit by changing her name into something as ugly as Bertha, is infuriating. You will want to crawl into the pages of this book and beat him.

I haven't read Jane Eyre (believe it or not) and so I came to the end of this book wondering if I missed some subtle nuances in this story because of that; but as a stand-alone story I thought it was very well-written. You would have to have a heart of stone not to root for and sympathize with Annette’s plight.

Grade: B+

Monday, October 26, 2009

#95....Under the Net

"Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute. What is urgent is not urgent for ever but only ephemerally. All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, like itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing."

Iris Murdoch’s 1954 novel, Under the Net, has been described as an example of the ‘picaresque’ novel, which Wikipedia terms as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road”. There is no better one-sentence summary of Under the Net and its roguish ‘anti-hero’, Jake Donaghue, out there. Jake, a thirty-something, self-obsessed, angst-ridden slacker who spends his time translating cheesy French novels and mooching off his friends, is kicked out of his house by his ex-girlfriend. Having no real source of income and lots of free time, Jake decides to hunt down another ex-girlfriend for a place to stay, and it is there that the long-winded and pointless escapades of an uninteresting, unemployed single guy begin. Fiances of old girlfriends, horse racing, dog-stealing, binge drinking and skinny dipping abound in spades, as Jake flounders around London trying to find himself, or a place to stay, whichever comes first.

One thing I noticed (and disliked) about this novel was the amount of time Murdoch spent in Jake’s head. The book was essentially written like one long stream-of-consciousness, like Jake’s brain with closed-captioning. In keeping with the Existentialist tradition, of which Murdoch was a proponent, she gets into the minutiae of Jake's life in order to more clearly define him....what he thinks about people, what he thinks they think about him, why he's going to do something, what might happen if he does it, what he thinks people will do when he does nauseum. It was ‘too much information’ for me, personally. I wasn’t sure if I didn’t like Jake’s character because I knew everything he was thinking, or if he just wasn’t all that interesting. Probably a bit of both. Hugo, the one character I would have liked to know more about, and someone Jake found so interesting that he wrote an entire book on his philosophy of life, would have made a much more fascinating main character, but alas, Murdoch chose to go with Everyman instead. Lucky us.

I’ve read several other reviews from people who loved this book and its irreverant style. I hate coming to the end of books feeling like I missed something, but I just didn’t find it with this one, and I blame myself.

Grade: C-

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

#96...Sophie's Choice

"Is it best to know about a child's death, even one so horrible, or to know that the child lives but that you will never, never see him again? I don't know either for sure. Suppose I had chosen Jan to go to the left instead of Eva. Would that have changed anything?" She paused to look out through the night at the dark shores of the Virginia of our destination, removed by staggering dimensions of time and space from her own benighted, cursed and--to me even at that moment--all but incomprehensible history. "Nothing would have changed anything," she said."

For two weeks after the attacks on September 11, 2001, I was unable to sleep with the lights off. I lay curled in my bed every night, with the horrifying and grotesque images we were constantly being shown on TV scrolling through my head like the CNN crawl. I was firmly, irrationally convinced that the terrorists would show up any minute in my tiny little town of Chico, California, and take over. Watching the unimaginable happen that week--airplanes slamming into buildings, buildings I had visited as a child collapsing--anything seemed possible. The terrorists had not only invaded New York, they had invaded my head.

When people talk about the Holocaust, most people point to the horrifying number of people killed in the concentration camps over a 5-6 year period. What many people don't focus on is how many walked away from that. Barrington James estimates that 6.5 million Jews survived the Holocaust. Imagine what the survivors of the most atrocious violation of human rights ever in our history must have witnessed while in captivity...and then imagine not only trying to live with those images in your head night after night, but also trying to live with the guilt of being one of the 'lucky ones' when so many others died. It makes my television experience of 9/11 look painless by comparison.

William Styron’s fifth novel, Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979, is a very deep and intense story that takes readers into the heart of the Holocaust, told from the viewpoint of one who endured and escaped its persecutions, and her attempts to live with what she experienced. Stingo, the book's main character, is a dislocated Southerner and embittered wanna-be author, who befriends Sophie, a Polish emigrant, and her paranoid schizophrenic Jewish boyfriend Nathan, in a Brooklyn boardinghouse. Sophie and Nathan’s relationship is tormented and passionate, and it is in between their arguments that Sophie opens up to Stingo about her experiences of the Holocaust from her life in Poland, leading up to the terrible choice she is forced to make on the platform at Auschwitz. The struggle of Sophie and Nathan to deal with their pasts and their own personal demons is heart-rending and uncomfortably fascinating. Kind of like a car crash; you don’t want to see it, but you can’t look away.

It is Styron’s treatment of memory and how the characters chose to remember events that happened in their lives that touched me the most during the course of the novel. When Sophie would tell a story to Stingo, she would begin with the glossed-over, more palatable version, but then later would tell the true, much more painful version. The lies the characters were telling to themselves to escape the guilt and sadness they had experienced, while understandable, were heartbreaking. I was not sure at times that Sophie was lucky to have escaped with her life. Is it harder to live with the memories of something awful, or to be dead? That is the question Styron asks.

In the end, Styron shows us that the dead of the concentration camps were not the only victims of the Holocaust. Those who lived through its horrors like Sophie, and those who stood passively by, like Nathan, were just as deeply affected. The true horror of the Holocaust is and always will be that it was allowed to happen at all. Thanks to the experiences and images of the Holocaust, horrible events in our modern times like the genocide in Bosnia and 9/11 no longer go unchecked and ignored. Sophie’s Choice is a fantastically deep and moving novel I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.

Grade: A

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Libris Interruptus...Bedside Table Confessional

Taking a break from the lighthearted fiction I've been reading lately :)

I woke up this morning and realized that, in addition to Sophie's Choice, I have three other books stacked up on my nightstand, all of which I am about halfway through reading. Wondering if maybe I should seek some help. :) Here is what I currently have stacked up:
Julia Child, My Life in France
Philippa Gregory, The White Queen
George Washington's Mount Vernon (don't ask! :)
Anyone else out there incapable of reading one book at a time? Share with us what you're in the middle of. We should support each other!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

#97....The Sheltering Sky

“And it occurred to him that a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there never would be a return, another time.”

The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles’ first novel, and his most famous. Seeing as Bowles spent the majority of his life as an American expatriate living in Tangiers, Morocco, there’s no one better equipped to write about the experiences of clueless American tourists in the wilds of Northern Africa. And that is the basic premise of Sky: an American couple, Port and Kit Moresby, and their friend Tunner have decided to do some traveling in and around this area of Africa, despite travel warnings in this area which Port knows about but neglects to mention to his wife or friend. Port is already unfaithful to his wife within the first six chapters, and Kit’s pretended or real nonchalance sets up the dynamic that is to continue between the couple. As the group travels deeper into Africa, they get further from civilization as they know it, and that’s when things get interesting. The experience of what was to be a fun foreign sojourn changes three lives forever.

When Sky was first shown to Doubleday Publishing in 1949, it was rejected because it was not felt that the book was really a novel. It’s not hard to see why Doubleday might have felt this way. It reads somewhat like a travelogue of Northern Africa, and may have been thought to be more autobiographical than fictional. The descriptive language Bowles uses is pure and beautiful. Bowles obviously gives his setting great importance and wants the reader to see where they are. You can feel the flies as Port drives the jeep through the swarm. You can smell the garbage laying around the hotel in Ain Krorfa. Having never been to Africa, I needed Bowles' help to imagine what it would be like, and he definitely came through for me.

Against this rich backdrop are the morally questionable characters of Port, Kit and Tunner. Interestingly, Bowles keeps them at an emotional distance from the reader by pointing out their myriad faults early and often, emphasizing lies, infidelity and insecurity. I never felt truly sympathetic to anyone except maybe Tunner, who is the quintessential third wheel and keeps getting the shaft. What made this book fascinating for me was how each character reacts to the diminishment of civilization in their environment. Tunner freaks out about weevils in their soup, yet Port and Kit unhesitatingly finish their entire bowls of soup despite this. Kit’s desperation and helplessness in the middle of nowhere, far from medical care when Port becomes sick, is palpable. How well would any of us hold up in this same situation? How much does it take for someone to be pushed across the line between sanity and insanity?

The last third of the book was, for me, where the momentum really picked up. Finally, I cared about one of the characters, yet still in a limited way. I wanted to know what would happen to Kit and if she would make it out of the wild. Not all of the book was coherent or readable (the section describing Port’s typhoid delirium is a good example), but the overall message of living every day in the present because there may not be a tomorrow is profound and sobering. It didn’t make me want to go on a trip to Tangiers any time soon, but thanks to Paul Bowles' beautifully descriptive prose, I was able to visit it in my imagination just as if I had been there.

Grade: B-

Sunday, September 13, 2009

#98....The Postman Always Rings Twice

"I'm not what you think I am, Frank. I want to work and be something, that's all. But you can't do it without love. Do you know that, Frank? Anyway, a woman can't. Well, I've made one mistake. And I've got to be a hell cat, just once, to fix it. But I'm not really a hell cat, Frank."

James M. Cain, author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, refused to be locked in to his reputation as a member of the “hard boiled school of crime fiction”, commenting "I belong to no school, hard-boiled or otherwise". In fact, Cain had wanted to be an opera singer, but didn’t have the voice for it. As a journalist for the Baltimore Sun and the New York World in the 1920’s, Cain was probably exposed to sensationalist stories similar to the story he tells in Postman, which is reputed to have been based on a real life case. Drifter Frank Chambers is the wrong man in the wrong place, when he walks into a small café in the middle of nowhere and collides with Cora Papadakis, the wife of the café’s owner. Frank takes a job there and sparks fly between them, and Cora decides the only way out of her loveless marriage is for the two of them to kill her husband Nick. Nearly caught on the first attempt, the second attempt is successful, but brings more consequences than either Frank or Cora imagined.

Cain’s main characters were “often self-destructive, or used by stronger women.” Postman is no exception to this. Although Frank has a rough edge to his character, Cora is truly the ‘hell cat’ she describes herself as. Their affair is passionate, anything but tender, and unfortunately Nick’s death does not bring them the happiness they seek. Both toy with the idea of killing each other and Cora even gives Frank a chance to do this. Accountability for crimes is a dish best served hot.

As I’m sure millions of other readers have done, I looked throughout the book for any mention of a postman ringing twice, or even once, and came up with nothing. I found this quote to explain the title’s origin on Wikipedia:

"With the "postman" being God, or Fate, the "delivery" meant for Frank was his own death as just retribution for murdering Nick. Frank had missed the first "ring" when he initially got away with that killing. However, the postman rang again, and this time the ring was heard."

The book was rather short and the story pretty straightforward. Like with any murder mystery, it was very suspenseful and I do believe everyone got what was coming to them in the end. Not high in the profundity department but enjoyable nonetheless. Anyone from the John Grisham school will be happy.


Friday, September 11, 2009

#99...The Ginger Man

"When things are bad you keep telling yourself they can't get worse. Then they get worse. And stay that way until you're so weary and screwed you can't even worry anymore. It gets like that. So damn bad that you have to cheer up or die."

Picture for a moment the most decrepit, angry, shiftless, lascivious, drunken guy out there. Turns out you’ll have barely scratched the surface of Sebastian Dangerfield, JP Donleavy’s protagonist (if that’s even the correct word) in his 1955 first novel, The Ginger Man.

In 1950’s-1960’s Britain, an artistic movement arose, called Kitchen Sink Realism, which, according to Wikipedia, “often depicted the domestic situations of working class Britons living in rented accommodation and spending their off-hours in grimy pubs to explore social issues and political controversies"... “with stress on the banality of life”. There is hardly a better description of the basic plot of The Ginger Man to be found anywhere. Sebastian is supposed to be attending the university and raising a family, but unfortunately he seems to be doing anything but that. The story follows Sebastian’s never-ending trail of self-destruction through the pubs, slums, and beds of Dublin and London. Throw in some wife-battering, debt evasion, and petty theft, and you've got all the elements for a tale that Dorothy Parker of Esquire Magazine called, right on the cover of my book, "Lusty, violent, wildly funny." Drunk people are funny sometimes, right? (Right?). Honestly, I think there was only one part of the book that made me laugh, but it definitely wasn't what I would call 'wildly funny'. Slightly humorous, perhaps. Maybe Parker should have stuck with lusty and violent. Then I would have been more prepared for what was coming.

Reading the above, one would think that Sebastian Dangerfield has no chance of evoking any emotions other than disgust and loathing. However, they would be wrong. He also evokes exasperation and scorn. There was not a hole black enough and deep enough anywhere to throw him into, which was my only regret at the end of the novel, and I ran out of hope that he would help himself out and grow up by about page six. If JP Donleavy’s purpose in writing The Ginger Man was to show the seedy side of life and evoke strong emotions, he definitely succeeds there.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

#100...The Magnificent Ambersons

"In the days before deathly contrivances hustled them through their lives, and when they had no telephones--another ancient vacancy profound responsible for leisure--they had time for everything: time to think, to talk, time to read, time to wait for a lady!"

This quote from the first chapter of Booth Tarkington's 1919 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Magnificent Ambersons, sets us up to enter the changing world of the turn of the century America. Horses and buggies are being swapped for "horseless carriages". Factories are springing up everywhere. And in the midst of a small midwestern town lives the ‘old money’ Amberson family, around whose fortunes the interest of the town revolves. There is only one heir to the Amberson fortune, George Amberson Minafer, and he is spoiled beyond belief and utterly ridiculous. He feels everyone else not an Amberson is "riffraff" and beneath him, and he shows nothing but contempt for the technological marvels that are changing the world around him. Georgie discovers several universal truths about money during the course of Tarkington’s novel: that it doesn’t buy happiness or guarantee forgiveness, doesn’t quell gossiping tongues, and, to misquote Tarkington, it’s “rahthuh bettuh” to ‘do something rather than be something’.

Tarkington’s two most sympathetic characters, Lucy Morgan, Georgie’s love interest, and his father, Wilbur Minafer, are excellent foils for the spoiled, upper class Georgie. Lucy represents the rise of ‘new money’, as her middle-class father becomes successful with his ‘horseless carriage’ and Wilbur, whose marriage to Georgie’s mother Isabel was reputed to be ‘beneath her’ represents the ‘save, don’t spend’ maxim, knowing that wealth is not end-all, be-all. Both are good natured, loving people who are more closely in tune with the world and its changes than Georgie is. You get the feeling after reading Ambersons that Tarkington wanted his readers to feel negatively about the entitled upper class, sitting on its money and contributing nothing to society. It definitely came across loud and clear.

In real life, Tarkington’s family fortunes followed much the same path as the fictional Ambersons, and thanks to that, Georgie’s resistance to the changes that occur both in his surroundings and in his immediate family is real and believable. Like Georgie, Tarkington was not a big believer in higher education, dropping out of both Purdue and Princeton Universities without graduating. Like Georgie, the Tarkingtons were upper class but suffered a decline in their fortunes with the Panic of 1873. Tarkington knew what it was like to go from something to nothing; and at the story’s conclusion, he leaves it up to the reader to decide if Georgie will make it after all.

I enjoyed this book, although I don’t know that it was Top 100 of the Century worthy. The story was well-told and had plenty of plot twists. The momentum of Georgie’s downward spiral kept the story moving, and I really had no idea until the end how it would all end up for him. With today’s societal obsession with the rich and famous, Georgie’s story of riches to rags and quest for redemption in the eyes of those who love him is still as relevant and absorbing today as it was back at the turn of the century.